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california burning:
wildland fires are part of our landscape
by lucy lediaev

Brush fires have always been a part of my life. For the first nine years of my life, my family lived on a dead-end street down the middle of a small canyon. We were only five miles from downtown Los Angeles, but people in our neighborhood raised rabbits, chickens, ducks, and goats in their brush-covered hillside backyards. The two hills were known respectively as Nanny-Goat Hill and Billy-Goat Hill. In the summer, when the wild oats were tall, all of the kids in the area would find large pieces of cardboard to use as "sleds." Summertime sledding was an occupation that terrified our parents because of the steep terrain, large rocks, and discarded cans and broken bottles.

Virtually every summer there was at least one fire. One of my early memories is of hauling garden hoses from our yard next door so that my mother could keep the fire out of my grandmother's back yard until the fire department arrived. The acoustics in our little canyon were rather strange. You could hear a fire breaking out on the hill behind your neighbors across the street, but not behind your own property. Thus, you had to rely on your neighbors for early warning and assistance. In those days, it could take a little while to reach the fire department and for them to arrive on the scene, so everyone was prepared to protect their own property until help arrived.

I remember another time when my siblings and I were at school. My mother and a neighbor saved another neighbor's dog by letting him out of the backyard. They also watered down an outbuilding and saved it from going up with the brush.

To this day, my heart beats rapidly when a fire engine goes down the street with sirents wailing--in my childhood, it almost always meant that one of the hills in our canyon was on fire.

As I look back, it amazes me how much the fire situation has changed in Southern California. Back then, fires in city areas were small because there were only small areas of open brush. Vacant lots and some hillside areas were easily accessible, people knew how to protect themselves with brush clearance and basic fire fighting skills, and building did not encroach on mountain and desert regions.

Now, residential housing has encroached extensively on wildland areas. Wildland fires have always been a reality in the American West, but they burned without catastrophic results. Now that so many wildland areas have been taken over by dense housing projects, those same fires have devastating consequences resulting in human misery, as well as a huge financial impact on government, business, and individual property owners. Wildland fire management was a matter of concern in California even back in the 1930s. My own grandfather, a conservationist, participated in a study group in regard to the management of these fires.

Right now over one-quarter of a million people are out of their homes in Southern California. Fire fighters are as busy managing evacuations (including persuading recalcitrant individuals to leave harms way) and rescuing people as they are in managing and controlling the fires.

Right now, the closest of the fires is at least ten miles from my home as the crow flies. Nonetheless, Simi Valley, where I live, is covered with smoke and breathing is difficult. My nephew and his family in the San Diego area are waiting to hear if they need to evacuate to the Navy base where he works. Everyone I know here in the Southern California knows at least one person directly affected by the various fires.

Clearly, we can not easily move people out of the wildland areas where they've already built (although Mother nature seems committed to their eradication right now), but we can look carefully at where we allow people to build in the future. Our remaining forests and our chaparral need to burn periodically. It's a normal part of their life cycle. Nothing here in Southern California is quite a beautiful as seeing some of the native wild flowers we not seen in years come back after a burn. Brush fires actually help them germinate.

Hopefully, local and state officials will look at the high cost, both in human and financial terms, of allowing development to infringe on our remaining wildlands here in California. Yes, many of these areas are beautiful and wonderful, scenic places to live. But, can we afford to build in these areas where a combination of the Santa Ana devil winds and dense brush make intense fires simply a reality of life here. It's likely that global warming is playing a role in climate change, but where we choose to build our homes is an ever bigger contributor to the tragedy we are now seeing and will likely see repeated over the next few months and years.


A freelance writer and full-time grandma, Lucy Lediaev retired recently from a position as web master, tech writer, and copy writer in a biotech firm. She is enjoying retirment more than she ever dreamed and is now writing about topics that are, for the most part, interesting and fun. She also has time to pursue some of her long-time interests, such as crafts, reading, sewing, baking, cooking, and the like.

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margot lester
10.26.07 @ 9:19a

thanks for sharing your memories of urban canyon life, lucy. and your reflections on the current situation.

rebuilding where mother nature has made it clear she wishes you wouldn't build in the first place is "the american way". but you're right, we should be paying more attention. in many coastal areas here in the east, there are now ordinances and laws that restrict habitual rebuilding of homes devastated by hurricanes. it's a small, spotty step, but it's a start.

stay safe!

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